On A Feverish Planet with Cardinals and Alligators
We are living at a time when the possibilities of astronomy have exploded with the next generation of “extremely large telescopes” (ELTS) which are being built in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. Most people are not generally aware that in mere decades we will be able to see enough details of faraway planets to actually witness the changes of their seasons if they happen to have vegetation. The high dry altitudes of South America have no moisture to cloud the hundred and twenty foot lenses that will soon peer into deepest space to give us the first glimpse of these planets orbiting nearby stars. And the next generation of telescopes that will one day replace these giants will even be able to detect micro-organic life forms.
To study in such detail the most distant worlds ever explored has inspired a new generation of astronomers coming up through the ranks. Rene Heller, for example, is a young Canadian astrobiologist trying to make a name for himself by suggesting that there are many planets out there even better than our own; they don’t have as many bad features inhospitable to life as ours does, including frigid polar regions, arid deserts, too much open ocean, and, of course, a feverish climate constantly teetering on the edge of overheating.
Frankly, I find no intrinsic joy in thinking about our planet being inferior to other planets, especially since the Cardinals have come back. I find myself almost weeping that they are still here, these earnest little red birds with their black masks and triangular stout bills, so optimistic and positive. There is nothing out of harmony, out of balance, out of whack in anything they do. They mate for life and remain together the whole year in unruffled tranquility.
It is true that their offspring are not as studious as those of the mockingbird, not as interested in mimicking every song or sound they have ever heard, but adult cardinals possess parenting skills that reflect their general exuberance and stability and, like other songbirds, one might even recognize in their efforts some emotional clarity: little cardinals do not grow up as haters and killers which, needless to say, gives hope for the future. Both their parents work themselves to exhaustion feeding and parenting their nestlings each season.
Adult male cardinals never disrespect or degrade their dignified mates. You will never read that large numbers of cardinal females have been violently abused. Such behavior is not the cardinal way. They also live amiably with thrashers and mockingbirds, sparrows and mourning doves, even though these neighboring birds have their own colors and lifestyles, build their nests differently, and possess different calls and songs and whistles.
The song of the cardinal is stoical, short and sweet unlike the seemingly endless repertoire of the mockingbird which often prevents people from sleeping during certain seasons. Indeed, a Mr. Allen, in 1894, described the cardinal’s musical solo as follows: a “strong rich whistle, cheo-cheo-cheo-cheo, repeated over and over as if to make perfect the start of a song he is about to sing, suddenly he stops, and you learn that there is to be no glorious performance after all, only a prelude to–nothing.” It is like “the most melodious sigh”, Mr. Allen concludes.
Despite this lack of melodic complexity, everybody loves the Northern Cardinal because the male’s undeniable gift, brilliant red feathers set against a dreary winter landscape, has always inspired hope. Of course, his female is also especially striking with tinges of paler red on her beige feathers.
Cardinals have extended their range in 200 years so even Floridians can now appreciate the flash of red wings against black summer thunder clouds. At sunrise and sunset, while contemplating the beauty around them, the pair in our yard sings their cheery one-note in fervent duets. Unlike most other birds, cardinals sing while waiting for their little cardinals to be born as well as after the juveniles leave the nest, which might explain why their reputation for cheerfulness and effervescence is so common.
Of course, there is one thing. In the 21st century, humans will achieve at least 1,000 times the progress of the 20th century, while the lives of cardinals will remain much the same. We change the way we do things very fast but cardinals can only change their behavior at the glacial pace of evolution. Still, with cardinals, all hell will never break loose.
When these bright birds swoop over the pool to a favored spot in the hedge, I feel confident that, for the time being anyway, I am safe. They are a constant reminder that Joanie and I still live among healthy songbirds under a reliable blue sky amid swaying palms, even though our sun is almost past middle age and, according to Mr. Heller, will not last long enough to further evolve and diversify the biosphere once we have stripped and degraded it beyond all recognition.
Our back yard, for all its small populations of wild creatures, is really only a permanently managed artificial environment that caters to our comfort. Recently, to acquire another more realistic point of view about living on this earth, to get away from plastic, artificial lights, cars, asphalt and concrete, Joanie and I left our avian neighbors, our pool and comfortable chairs and take-out food from Whole Foods and drove with good friends to the Everglades to take a long muddy walk in The Big Cyprus Swamp.
A Big Cypress Swamp Walk takes one into the western Everglades to a mysterious secretive sanctuary still unspoiled by the Army Corps of Engineers and cherished by small numbers of adventurers. We had to sign a waiver of liability that showed we understood the inherent risks, dangers, and hazards of such a walk which in the waiver was called “the Event”. We also had to wear long pants and old tennis shoes and carry a big walking stick. Despite all these heroics, everything went well and, because it was the dry season, we did not have to walk in chest deep water. Rather the black muddy swamp water only reached our knees. Joanie and I kept close to our guide who was self-taught in botany and who had spent many days and nights off trail camping in hammocks with special nets that kept out tiny no-see-ums as well as clouds of mosquitoes.
For five miles, we learned about endangered orchids, rare swallowtail butterflies, and ancient fossilized tree snails lying at our feet. We walked up the slightest elevation from black water to deep mud to bleached bone-like piles emerging conspicuously from the ground like a series of hip-bones. This was limestone, the real ground of the Florida peninsula. Our pony-tailed guide told us if he happened to see an unlikely black bear or a Florida panther or a Burmese python, or god forbid, an alligator, he would not share his find, but merely walk on nonchalantly at a slightly different pace. As for myself, I was only aware of mosquitoes landing on the back of my neck and the sticky heat. Ironically, the most interesting “event” occurred a few days later as we were leaving, carrying our suitcases and gear down from the second floor of our rented cottage to the car.
Our cottage had overlooked a lagoon filled with alligator families, many large turtles, and noisy swarming flocks of white herons, egrets, wood storks, and anhingas. These birds flew impertinently over the immobile bodies of two huge alligators that patrolled the water at night and snoozed in the sun all day. The large turtles seemed nonchalant but big orange signs warned people not to get too close to the edge.
Our sneakers were still damp from the day before and we were chattering mindlessly about stopping at Captiva Island to have lunch and dessert at the celebrated Bubble Room. We were all proud that we had transcended our original anxiety about visiting a great swamp teeming with poisonous snakes, alligators and clouds of insects. Because we had chosen to do something uncomfortable and unsafe in essentially primitive conditions, we felt we were ready to reward ourselves.
These absurd thoughts were soon interrupted by the fiercest mightiest bone-chilling roar that we had ever encountered. Thirty feet away, a huge alligator head with wide open mouth rose out of the water like a monster from another age. I could see right through rows of teeth down his pale pink throat. The growls and roars continued for some minutes when another huge alligator head rose out of the lagoon even closer to the shoreline where twenty-seven tiny alligators had recently scampered about, and responded with her own frightful roars. Our suitcases were forgotten as we simply stared paralyzed in a scene out of Jurassic Park.
Cardinals, like all birds, seem to belong in a friendly deeply loved universe. Alligators, on the other hand, have their own way of being, more antisocial, sullen and ominous, as befits primeval predators. Their presence suggests frightening possibilities throughout the cosmos: beings who can easily tear us limb from limb and eat us alive
Trapped in their ancient bodies, they drowse and wait, carrying the same heaviness of spirit as their fifty foot ancestors who lived 150 million years ago. These modern alligators are living fossils who managed to avoid extinction when the dinosaurs vanished. Earth has allowed them to remain primeval predators without need of either wisdom or compassion.
The most massive alligator’s brain is only the size of half a tablespoon. Even so, these two guardians of a lagoon, neither stupid nor half alive, finally gave me that message from a wild non-human creature that I have been waiting to hear for years now.
Above the dreadful din of their repeated roars, I heard their enraged protest loud and clear: you are despoilers, freakishly clever life forms creating waves of extinctions wherever you go. Of course the ranger later said these roars, rarely ever heard by humans, had something to do with a mating ritual. But I knew better.
Shaken, we had to eventually leave the swamp, and take our planned detour to Captiva Island. I ordered a dessert the size of my laptop and tried to forget about being a despoiler. But even a gigantic slab of orange frosted cake could not erase my shame caused by those two old alligators, the only reptiles who take care of their young and their future, who represent one of the most extraordinary survival stories on the planet.
Once home again, I catch fleeting glimpses of our cardinals using the bird bath for the first time. Usually, they are more cautious, being such a startling spectacle. For eight years, I have never witnessed a cardinal taking a daytime bath in our back yard. Now, perhaps because of some inexorable secret algorithm of evolution, they are taking turns splashing their bright feathers with blue jays and mockingbirds.
I suppose our leaders believe we are evolving too. Pretending as usual to be perfectly rational creators of telescopes, satellites, rockets, and storage batteries, they plan to settle pioneers down on the red dust of Mars, and land on several asteroids hoping to find gold and diamonds and new ways to make money. Their latest achievement is the creation of code that makes robots flirt.
I may have misunderstood my alligator mentors. I just assumed they were hostile to me and my kind. But, now I think their roaring was grief and anguish and terrible disappointment that we have allowed poachers, thieves, murderers and fools to prevail because money must be made and development must continue.
The inexorable secret algorithm of evolution allows alligators to drowse and wait forever, but we can only hope that the cheerful sane cardinal tribe might one day in the far future be ready to assume a leadership role for our distressed planet before the biosphere is stripped and degraded beyond all recognition. In the absence of our corporate leaders whose descendants by then will have settled down to ravage yet another planet even better than our own, the cheerful cardinal tribe might be able to educate the rest of us to relinquish our iron hostile grip on this world. Perhaps, we will finally, with great relief, defer to these unruffled and tranquil superiors.
©2015 Linda Clarke Volume 14 Issue 1
I am so happy you are doing this. You perhaps realize that you need to shake off any lingering reluctance you might have to share these works. They are sorely needed. You have a deft wit, and together with razor sharp perceptions and divine compassion for all creatures, allow us to share your extraordinary kinship with
nature in all its aspects. Thank you, my dear friend,… Brilliant! love you lots,, Uma….
Thank you for allowing me to accompany you from the safety of my little room here tonight in CA on this daring adventure. Something I would never even dream of doing, and you make it so accessible–I feel as if I am right next to you in that swarmy place! The contrast of the two (non-human) species, each magnificent in its own right, yet so entirely different, creates a marvelous tableau painted in words. What a gift your insights are to us all!
Great Linda, as usual. Don’t stop there. Gave your book to a friend for her birthday weeks ago and she loves it. You are a very talented writer. Love, Joan
PS recently read my favorite book of all time, The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. You and Joan will love it.
thank you for a beautiful piece of writing. I hope you will continue.
What a wonderful expansive piece on our environment near and far. I’ve heard the sweet churr that trails at the end of the cardinals song, but I’ve never heard the roar and growl of an alligator. At a National Geographic lecture I once asked a photographer how he got a certain shot. He replied, “being there.” Being at Big Cypress was certainly part of how you experienced the alligator event, but mostly going one further than most people, into the deep where few tred. Bravo. On Our only visit to Big Cypress we travelled footpaths and boardwalks for small events that still thrilled us being there. Alligators were feeding in the river we were told because python were eating small mammals that make up part of the alligators diet. While there, a python took a deer down easily. So with food sources now challenged, the big armored alligator that roars and growls now fishes. Even a predator meets its match when nature is unbalance by the non-native. Those ELTS that you speak of take us far from the earth we stand on. And although I am a long time cloud watcher, star and planet gazer, the true focus of my interest is more microscopic. I can learn a lot from the male Cardinal that perched on my deck quietly feeding his mate by the side. I can’t hear the roar or growl of an alligator, but I can now know it exists because of an event you experienced and passed on. If only the real estate developers making plans in our ever expanding neighborhoods, or the big sugar industry draining the Everglades could pause their activities and heed what should be a cardinal rule — save planet Earth, it’s the only one we’ve got.